5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
O.J. Howard. Chicago has defended opposing tight ends very well this season but Howard is coming off his best game of the season and will once again be a significant part of the offense with Rob Gronkowski still not back from his fractured ribs. Howard, who has been playing almost exclusively inline with the offensive line, rather than detached in the slot or out wide, caught six passes for 49 yards and his first touchdown of the season against Philadelphia in Week Six. Several of those receptions were quick tight end screens that gave Howard a chance to use his run-after-catch ability to good effect. Howard has also helped with his blocking, running routes less frequently than fellow tight end Cameron Brate, and the Bucs have averaged 114 rushing yards per game over the three weeks Gronkowski has been out. Howard's pass blocking may be more significant this Sunday, however, as the Bears have gotten significant pressure off the edge this season. One challenge for Howard will be avoiding middle-of-the-field star Roquan Smith, who excels in pass coverage and can shadow almost any tight end in the league.
Shaquil Barrett. After the Buccaneers' defense registered exactly one sack in each of the first three games of the season, Barrett vowed that they would not have another outing for the rest of the campaign with just one sack. Apparently, he has taken it upon himself to make sure that vow was upheld, racking up 3.5 sacks over the last three games, during which the team has averaged three QB takedowns per week. Barrett has been particularly dangerous over the past two weeks, recording 10 pressures on a combined 44 pass rushes for a pressure rate of 22.7%. For reference, Barrett was one of the NFL's best pass rushers the past two years with full-season pressure rates of 13.5% in 2019 and 13.6% in 2020. Getting pressure on the Bears' young passer, rookie Justin Fields, will be critical on Sunday because Fields has struggled mightily when under pressure so far, unsurprisingly given his relative lack of experience. Fields ranks last in the NFL in completion percentage (28.0%), yards per pass attempt (3.1) and passer rating (23.3) when throwing under pressure.
Tristan Wirfs. The 13th-overall pick in the 2020 draft, Wirfs famously stepped into the Bucs' starting lineup as a fully-formed star at right tackles as a rookie, allowing just one sack during the entire regular season. This year, he is proving that debut to be no fluke, as according to Pro Football Focus he has yet to allow a sack in 2021 on 285 pass-blocking snaps. That has helped Tom Brady feel pressure on just 17.0% of his dropbacks so far, the second lowest rate in the NFL behind the Rams' Matthew Stafford. Brady has a league-high 1,811 passing yards on plays in which he was not pressured. Of course, that one sack Wirfs allowed last year went to Chicago's Khalil Mack, who is also off to a fantastic start in 2021. His team-high 6.0 sacks marks the first time he's reached that number within the first six games of a season, suggesting the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year could be building another monster campaign. Wirfs is surprisingly nimble and explosive for such a big man and he can successfully turn back bull-rushes, quick sprints around the outside and counter-moves and stunts. His battle with Mack could be one of the decisive elements of the game on Sunday.
Devin White. White's 9.0 sacks as an off-ball linebacker and his series of takeaways in the playoffs hinted that he might be primed for a monster season of his own in 2021 but through six games he is still looking for his first sack, interception, forced fumble, fumble recovery or tackle for loss. He has blitzed as well as ever, racking up seven QB hits to tie Shaq Barrett for the team lead, but his stat line isn't as robust as it was last year, at least not yet. But that doesn't mean his level of play has declined. As Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles explained on Thursday, the Bucs are simply asking White to do some different things in the defense to cover for the absence of some important regulars, and those things haven't necessarily translated to the stats page. "With a lot of injuries, we're kind of using him in different ways and asking him to do different things," said Bowles. "Right now, we're asking other people to be more impactful. He's probably doing more covering and more leaving and dropping in terms of those types of things. He is doing everything we're asking him to do and he's playing fine." Look for the big plays to show up soon, and if "soon" means this weekend against the Bears that could go a long way to helping the Bucs secure their first-ever 6-1 start.
Mike Evans. After four straight games with five catches and 75 yards (and a total of four touchdowns in that span), Evans was the odd man out in Week Six in Tom Brady's 'throw to the open man' approach. With Evans drawing a lot of attention from the Eagles' defense, Brady threw more often to Antonio Brown and also involved the backs and tight ends quite a bit. That may not be as good of an option in Week Seven, however, with Brown out of action, and the Buccaneers may have to make more of a concerted effort to get the ball into Evans' hands. The Bucs' eighth-year veteran also happens to be closing in on Mike Alstott's franchise record for touchdowns scored, needing just five more this season to catch the former Pro Bowl fullback. Evans, as always, will be one of the Bucs' best bets to find the end zone this Sunday. From the start of 2019 through Week Six of this season, Evans has been targeted in the end zone 89 times, eight more than any other player in the NFL. He's also caught 39 passes on go routes since 2018, the most in the NFL in that category as well.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 26-4. The Buccaneers have matched their best six-game start to a season ever with a 5-1 record, but that has not allowed them to separate from the NFC pack. Arizona, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Green Bay and the L.A. Rams are all 5-1 or better, with a combined record of 26-4. That is a set-up for a race for conference supremacy like the NFL hasn't seen in a while. In fact, this is the first time since 1976 that at least five teams had one loss or fewer through Week Six. All of those teams are under pressure not to fall off the pace in Week Seven; Dallas has the week off but all four of the other teams are favored by at least 9.5 points.
· 60/40. Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette is third in the NFL over the last three weeks with 376 yards from scrimmage, behind only workhorse backs Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor. In each of those three games, Fournette has had at least 60 rushing yards and at least 40 receiving yards, which is the longest active streak of such performances in the NFL. It's also close to the Buccaneers' record of five straight, set by James Wilder in 1984.
· 62.1/24. The Buccaneers' pass defense has seen its yardage-allowed total drop for three straight weeks, to 115 last Thursday in Philadelphia. Overall, however, Tampa Bay's pass defense and overall defense has been strong in the fourth quarter throughout the season. The Bucs have held opposing passers to a 62.1 passer rating on fourth-quarter throws, the third-lowest mark in the NFL. The team's six opponents have combined for just 24 fourth-quarter points, tied for the second-lowest total allowed by any NFL defense this year.
· 9.7/24.1%/2.8. Justin Fields, the Bears' rookie quarterback has a big arm and was well-known for his deep-ball accuracy at Ohio State. In his first run of starts as a pro, Fields is throwing the ball down the field with an average of 9.7 air yards per attempt; only Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, at 10.1, has averaged more air yards on his passes. Fields has also thrown more passes into 'tight windows' than any other passer in the league, with 24.1% of his passes falling into that category, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That is partially because Chicago's pass-catchers have not reliably gotten much separation. The targets of Fields' passes this season have had an average separation of 2.8 yards from the nearest defender per attempt, the lowest for any team in the NFL.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· After missing two games, second-year safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. exited the concussion protocol on Thursday and is ready to return to the starting lineup. Mike Edwards stepped in next to Jordan Whitehead in the starting lineup for those two games and is likely to still have a major role in the defense, even with Winfield back in action.
· Starting safety Tashaun Gipson has already missed two games this season with a hamstring strain and now he'll sit out this Sunday's contests due to a hip ailment. Deon Bush started the two games that Gipson missed and would presumably step in again. Chicago also listed four other defensive starters as questionable on Friday's injury report – outside linebacker Khalil Mack, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, defensive tackle Bilal Nichols and nickel back Duke Shelley – and went into the weekend with starting outside linebacker Robert Quinn on the COVID list, so there could be some more changes to the lineup on game day. That will definitely be the case on the interior line, as Hicks was downgraded to out by the Bears on Saturday.
· With Rob Gronkowski out for a fourth straight game, the Buccaneers will continue to give amplified playing time to O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. The team also elevated Deon Yelder from the practice squad on Saturday to be able to have three tight ends active against the Bears. The Buccaneers also elevated wideout Cyril Grayson and could keep him active for the game in place of the injured Antonio Brown.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE BEARS
Tampa Bay's defense will have to contend with a mobile young quarterback for the second week in a row and will look to do a better job of letting Justin Fields escape the backfield than they did against Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts last Thursday. The Bears also have a strong rushing attack that has found an impressive new contributor in rookie fifth-rounder Khalil Herbert. Chicago's defense is tied for the league lead in sacks and has been difficult to pass against, allowing only 218.7 yards per game through the air so far this season. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
The Buccaneers' defense will need to decide how it wants to defend against two-TE packages and formations with extra offensive linemen because Chicago has ramped up its usage of those two strategies in order to give Fields more time to operate and to get the run game going. With Andy Dalton starting the first two games, the Bears used personnel groupings with two-plus tight ends and/or an extra lineman on 20.3% and 29.5% of those outings, respectively. Fields started the third game and the Bears operated almost exclusively out of three-receiver groupings, with only 14.3% of their plays featuring extra big men. The results against Cleveland were disastrous – 47 total yards of offense – so the Bears altered their offensive approach dramatically. In the last three games, the Bears have used extra tight ends or linemen on 54.4%, 31.6% and 37.0% of their snaps, respectively. It's definitely worked in terms of running the ball, as the Chicago offense has averaged 157.0 rushing yards per game in that span. And while the protection for Fields could still be better, the Bears are definitely doing better out of two-TE sets (12 personnel) than three-WR packages (11 personnel). Over the last three games, the Bears have had a success rate, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, on over 60% of their snaps in 12 in each outing. At the same time, they haven't reached a 50% success rate out of 11 in any of those games.
The Bears may choose to use their top cornerback, Jaylon Johnson, on Mike Evans on Sunday, particularly if Antonio Brown is unable to play. Johnson shadowed Green Bay's Davante Adams in Week Six, covering the Packers' star pass-catcher on 91% of his routes. Adams still ended up with 89 yards on four catches – including 84 yards on three grabs when being covered by Johnson, but he was only targeted by Aaron Rodgers five times in the game, easily his lowest total of the season. Johnson was also used in this manner on Cleveland's Odell Beckham in Week Three, though the Bears took the strategy to more of an extreme against Adams by even having Johnson follow Adams into the slot. Evans would have a significant size advantage over the 6-0, 196-pound Johnson but the Bears' second-year corner has proved he can handle larger receivers. If Chicago shadows Evans with Johnson, the Bucs' veteran receiver will have to find a way to gain separation from the defender or Tom Brady will need to go elsewhere with the ball.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On if he's an anticipating a big game from Tampa Bay's defense given the Bears' last-place rankings in yards per game and yards per play:
"Not necessarily. Each and every week is different, and they've got playmakers. Khalil Herbert busted out on the scene; I really liked him coming out of [Virginia] Tech last year. You never know with a young quarterback what's going to happen, and we've got to do a really good job of disciplinary rushing him. I don't put any stock in stats."